Unionized Employees at Seattle-Based HMO Strike Over Proposed Increase in Their Health Insurance Premiums
About 1,700 unionized employees of Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative on Monday began a five-day strike to protest a proposed increase in employees' health insurance premiums, the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 8/23). Contract negotiations last week ended after three months of discussion between Group Health and Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents the Group Health workers. The union on Aug. 12 issued the minimum 10-day strike notice required by federal law for health care workers. Group Health operates 36 medical centers. Unionized employees said they will not strike at the Group Health Eastside Hospital in Redmond -- Group Health's only inpatient facility -- "to minimize inconvenience to patients," according to the Seattle Times (Song, Seattle Times, 8/23).
Before the strike began, Group Health transferred maternity patients, rescheduled outpatient surgery appointments and postponed back-to-school physical exams. Group Health said clinical services will be provided by nonstriking workers and outside temporary employees for the duration of the strike (San Francisco Chronicle, 8/23). About one third of unionized employees intend to cross the picket line and report to work, according to Scott Armstrong, chief operating officer for Group Health.
Group Health's latest contract offer proposed raising copayments for employees' doctor's office visits and prescriptions to $15 from $5. The offer also proposed charging union workers 1% of base annual pay for individual health insurance premiums, 2% of base pay for coverage of individual and a spouse or an individual and children and 3% of base pay for family coverage. Union workers currently do not pay a monthly premium. SEIU officials last week agreed to contracts at Swedish Medical Center and Valley Medical Center that retain "zero-premium health coverage" for many workers, according to the Times. Union leaders say that Group Health can afford to negotiate a similar deal.
Armstrong said that Group Health has offered to increase workers' salaries for the duration of the new contract to offset the increase in health care costs. Armstrong also said that some workers at Swedish Medical and Valley Medical would continue to pay more for their health benefits than Group Health employees because those facilities require employees to work at least 36 hours per week to receive benefits at no premium cost. Armstrong said, "The leadership of the union is asking their members to forgo more lost pay during the strike" than some workers would pay in the increased insurance costs.
Union spokesperson Carter Wright, said that the striking workers' goal is to send a message to management, not to impede patient care. Wright said, "We think the strike will be strongly supported. It will be a lawful, peaceful picket." The strike is expected to end at midnight Friday (Seattle Times, 8/23).